Tools for Peace
by Kelly Hatton
In communities from Pennsylvania to Washington, a new kind of tool is being used to plant gardens. It’s not an innovation in terms of form or technology.
In fact, these gardening tools may look a little primitive when compared to their factory-produced counterparts, though they are built to do the same work: to dig into the soil, to plant seeds, to clear weeds. What makes these tools unique is that each comes with a story.
“We try to create narratives of peace,” Michael Martin, founder and director of RawTools explained to the congregation gathered at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo.
The group of people, sitting on the church’s patio on an overcast spring day, had come to participate in a PeaceMaker’s ceremony. Around Martin, the scene looked much like a typical church service with rows of chairs filled with adults and squirming children; a guitar and keyboardists readied to lead the group in song. But to one side, an unusual sight drew the congregation’s attention. Forge, anvil, hammer, and blacksmith. During the ceremony, a dismantled gun would be made into a garden tool.
Martin’s inspiration for RawTools came from the Bible verse, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Na- tion will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:3-4).
Martin himself is not a literalist when it comes to scripture or his organization’s mission. Rather, RawTools promotes story, symbolism, and transformation.
“We’re a faith-based organization but not necessarily faith focused,” Martin later explained. “The main aspect of what we do is turn guns into garden tools and then tell the stories of the guns next to the stories of the garden tools.”
As a youth pastor for the Mennonite Church with a history as a landscaper, Martin wanted to do work to promote peace, using both his mind and his hands. He’s someone who has thought deeply about cycles of vio- lence, cycles of peace, and how the symbols and stories of both these narratives play out in society. In 2009, when the Navy commissioned the USS New York (LPD-21), a ship forged with salvaged steel from the Twin Towers, Martin felt compelled to act. “There was a lot of vengeance spoken in the commissioning of the ship,” he said. “That, and then Sandy Hook [school shooting] pushed me over the edge.”
He wanted to tell a different story and encourage communities to start conversations about how peace and justice can be tools in the fight against violence. To do this, Martin has thought carefully about RawTools, from the organization’s mission to the size of the tool. The choice, he explained, to handcraft garden tools, was deliberate.
“It’s our modern ploughshare and part of me likes a tool that requires you to be on your knees when you’re using it,” he said. “It gets you closer to the earth. It’s a person tool.”
The physical change from gun to tool is a literal transformation. Paired with stories, with ceremony and narrative, the act becomes transformative.
While the blacksmith worked at St. Andrew’s, the congregation was led in song by co-organizer Tim Coons and in prayer by Pastor Dale Fredrickson. The morning’s testimony came from Sharletta C. Evans. Evans is founder of the Victim Offender Mitigation Initiative, an organization that uses the philosophy of restorative justice to seek healing for crime victims and offenders.
Evans’ commitment to restorative justice comes from her experience as a victim. Over a decade ago, her 3-year-old son was killed during a random act of violence. The toddler was the only person hit by the stream of 22 bullets fired by a group of teenagers terrorizing a Denver neighborhood one winter afternoon.
While Evans shared her story, the steady clink of the hammer pounding the red-hot barrel flat echoed across the patio. The sound gave Evans’ story a beat, reminding the congregation of the patience, the slow and steady work that it can take to forgive. Because that’s what Evans did. More than a decade after the crime, as part of the restorative justice process, she participated in a facilitated session with the incarcerated man responsible for her son’s death. At the end of the session, she embraced him.
“There is healing in forgiveness,” she repeatedly reminded the congregation, while in the background, the hammer pounded.
Evans’ testimony transformed a story of violence into one of peace, and the small hand tool crafted during the ceremony is meant to do the same. RawTools is collecting stories from around the country about what’s being grown from the work they’ve forged.
“If you’ve got a tool, then you can show us your harvest every year, take pictures of gardens and flowers, whatever you’re making with your tool or tending to, you can share those stories of peace and create a peace narrative rather than narratives of violence,” Martin explained.
Since its establishment in 2013, the organization has travelled around the country and has left about three dozen garden tools in its wake. The stories of these tools will be shared via the organization’s website as soon as this fall. Martin hopes to create a searchable database that will let users search stories by place, or even by gun.
The gun for the PeaceMakers ceremony at St. Andrew’s was a donation from a local Colorado man. Though the RawTools has had success with personal donations thus far, obtaining guns remains one of the organization’s biggest hurdles.
The goal, Martin said, is to partner with police departments to access confiscated weapons. Currently, he’s negotiating with the Colorado Springs police department, where weapons are scrapped.
“I don’t think it’s that the departments disagree with what we do, I think it’s just a matter of doing it, the red tape, the paperwork, getting to know us as an organization, building trust. So we’re just waiting to get that first police department to say yes, and then the dominoes fall from there,” Martin said.
In the meantime, the PeaceMaker tour has events scheduled in Wash- ington, North Carolina, and New York. In each community, RawTools partners with faith organizations and local nonprofits to encourage local dialogue about breaking cycles of violence. In the process, guns are deconstructed, but not necessarily condemned.
“It’s not just as simple as passing gun laws,” Martin explained. “It’s a deep issue that has all kinds of facets to it. It requires more than legislation, and there are so many advocacy groups working on that already, we don’t need to. We’re coming at it from a different perspective.”
Martin’s vision for RawTools is to eventually have centers around the country where people can donate their guns to be safely dismantled, and then forged by a local blacksmith into garden tools. It’s slow work. But this could be part of the design. It’s yet an- other reflection of the complexity of the problem. Yanking the roots of violence requires more than one tool. For Martin, sharing stories and perpetuating a new conversation—one that centers on peace—is the right place to start. Metaphor, he acknowledges, is vital to the work.
“That’s why I like that we’re work- ing with blacksmiths rather than melting it down and pouring it into a mold,” he said. “It’s hard work to do it, and I think that’s part of the whole restoration process. It took Sharletta 17-18 years to get through what she needed to. Forgiveness is a process, not a one-step thing. I think it’s that way for everybody.”
At the close of the PeaceMaker’s ceremony, Evans took a few swings of the hammer with the congregation gathered around her. The barrel of the gun was unrecognizable. Now, instead, the iron was shaped into a flat hoe on one end and a three-pronged fork on the other. A tool for planting and caring for new growth, close to the soil. Evans put the final touches on the tool, which will travel with her story, while collecting new stories of peace to share.
“It’s just a beautiful thing to see. Once the tools are made, everything takes a life of its own,” Martin said.